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When Skateboards Will Be Free
By Saïd Sayrafiezadeh
Reviewed by Oriana Leckert
I was really excited to read this book. I love learning about the struggles of anyone who grew up "other," and Saïd is "other" like crazy: half Iranian, half Jewish American, and raised a militant Socialist in 1980s Pittsburgh. Saïd's father left when he was a baby, taking his two older siblings, and leaving Saïd to be brought up by his mother, a delusional, neglectful parental figure who spent the majority of her life waiting for her husband to return, and dedicated most of her time to the Socialist Workers Party. The rearing that she did for Saïd was primarily political, teaching him from an early age that he couldn't eat a single grape until the migrant struggle was over, and forcing them to live barely above the poverty line because for her to get a higher-paying job would be giving in to the decadence of capitalism. Saïd and his mother make a strange, emotionlessly codependent pair in this telling, reserving most of their passion for Socialist ideals and politics, and hungrily following Saïd's father's life from a distance, even though he refuses to communicate with them pretty much at all.
Beyond indoctrinating him with strict political beliefs, Saïd's mother doesn't do a lot in the way of parenting. Saïd is left to make things up as he goes along, with the expected result: a childhood spent alienated from his peers, full of awkward missteps and a good deal of loneliness. It doesn't help that he has a very Middle Eastern name during the Iranian hostage crisis, and that his views are not at all in line with the rah-rah-America fervor of the times.
Saïd, understandably, has a lot of anger at both his parents, and at politics. Though the book is primarily about his unhappy childhood, we are given glimpses of his much calmer, easier present: he is now a graphic designer for Martha Stewart, living in a clean, well-decorated apartment in the West Village, and dating a lovely coworker. What's missing, however, is the transition he made from an angry, isolated little Socialist to a well-adjusted corporate artist. And what is even more cavernously lacking are Saïd's actual emotions. He deadpans more or less the entire book, relating anecdotes flatly, narratively, without reacting to them at all. That's one thing when describing an episode when he was eight where he used a racial slur to get back into the good graces of his classmates, but it's another when telling about the time when, at eleven, he received a letter from his father--who has been completely incommunicado for several years--a letter that is itself devoid of emotion, which Saïd calmly reads twice, then buries in his sock drawer. And it's quite another thing when, at seventeen, Saïd discovers that his mother, who he thought had been sleeping for two days straight, is actually near death from an overdose of psych meds. It is not until he is sitting in the hospital with her and her therapist (and may I note that Saïd, despite spending nearly every waking moment with his mother, somehow did not even know that she was in therapy), when his mother starts screaming that she doesn't want to live, that Saïd even mentions that he cried.
A lot of bad shit happened to Saïd, and I'm sure that he needs a certain amount of distance from the memories still. But he tells his whole story at such a remove that it almost feels like fiction, like a construct. His conversations tend to go on far too long, both too long and mundane to hold my interest, and also too long for me to believe that he actually remembered them as such, thus adding to the feeling of artifice that permeates the book, like he's merely recreating the vague structure of a life, rather than dealing with the fallout. We're missing his reactions, his emotions, his growth, and even, most of the time, his anger. So, for me, the book fell short. It was indeed an interesting look at a crazy childhood, but it was lacking in depth, and left me feeling a little hollow.
Out of 10: 6.5
PS: If you'd like to hear from the author directly, please see this great interview my brilliant friend Leila did with him for the Tehran Bureau; and if you'd like an intelligent (and quite heated) takedown of his politics and his memory, check out this review on the Socialist website Swans.